Government vows to heed social concerns after anti-immigration riots, says Minister

Simon Coveney says ‘we do need to try to listen to what people are saying’ as the State faces pressure to provide accommodation for refugees

Minister for Enterprise Simon Coveney has vowed to heed concerns about pressure on housing days after Dublin’s worst riots in decades were stoked by far-right agitators whipping up anti-immigration fears.

“We do need to try to listen to what people are saying,” Mr Coveney told the Financial Times. That included social support and giving reassurances to local communities when placing asylum seekers in short-term accommodation such as hotels in inner city areas “where there is tension and concern”.

The Government has been struggling to accommodate an increasing number of refugees and on Tuesday warned about the “very real possibility” of running out of room for them in the coming days.

But Coveney denied Ireland was following fellow EU member states such as the Netherlands and Italy where more than a fifth of voters opt for anti-immigrant parties.


Rampaging youths set buses on fire, clashed with police on one of Dublin’s busiest streets and looted shops last Thursday after three children and a care worker were stabbed outside a school by a man far-right groups had claimed was an Algerian immigrant.

Coveney said the alleged perpetrator was naturalised and had lived in Ireland for 20 years.

Speaking in an interview in Brussels, he said a handful of people peddling a “warped agenda built on hate and anger and dividing society” had stirred anti-immigration sentiment on social media, tarnishing the country’s welcoming and socially progressive reputation.

Ireland has no mainstream far-right party but as immigration has grown, fringe groups on social media platforms have “weaponised the very real and legitimate issues” the country has failed to resolve, said Aoife Gallagher, a Dublin-based senior analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue think-tank.

Gallagher said Ireland has been hit by multiple challenges, including a housing crisis and a lack of access to education, healthcare and mental health services.

“The depletion of services is very much contributing to the far right’s ability to create an ‘us versus them’ narrative.”

Coveney said most Irish people were “very comfortable” with immigration. The Government has stressed that healthcare, among other sectors, would grind to a halt without it. About 40 per cent of doctors in Ireland trained abroad, the fourth highest in the OECD.

As 141,600 people arrived in the year to April 2023, pushing Irish immigration to a 16-year high, anti-immigration messaging on social media has surged.

ISD, which focuses on extremism and disinformation, counted an average of 2,876 posts about immigration in Ireland a day from January 1 to April 3, up 300 per cent from the whole of 2022 and 1,800 per cent since 2020.

Immigration is part of Ireland’s profound social transformation this century.

The once poor, inward-looking, Catholic nation has embraced global technology companies and workers from the EU and beyond while holding referendums ditching long-standing bans on gay marriage and abortion. Over the past two decades, the proportion of its population born abroad has doubled to 20 per cent.

Two foreigners — a Brazilian Deliveroo rider and a Filipino nurse — were among those who rushed to help the victims of Thursday’s knife attack. Coveney noted that one of the injured children was the daughter of immigrants.

Still, the pace of social change has been too fast for some.

Bryan Fanning, professor of migration and social policy at University College Dublin, noted that more than 30 per cent voted against legalising abortion in 2018 and many “ordinary” conservatives “feel disrespected”.

“Ireland became very progressive, very quickly,” he said.

“So the question is not whether we have a very, very dangerous far right but whether some aspect of that far right can reach out and convince ordinary, everyday people.”

Police say last week’s riots involved “hooligans” and opportunists and Coveney said “some far-right activists in the UK are also active in Ireland”.

But they followed increasing protests by far-right groups with rallying calls on social media — some from prominent figures with millions of followers.

Lawmakers were blockaded into Ireland’s Dáil parliament in September as protesters outside erected a mock guillotine. Far-right groups have disrupted LGBT+ book events in public libraries and seized on recent high-profile murders committed by foreigners.

Many of the protests have taken aim at immigrants amid rising pressures on housing and public services.

Despite booming corporation tax revenues that have swollen state coffers so much that Ireland is now setting up a long-term sovereign wealth fund, even increases in homebuilding remain far short of meeting demand.

That has left a generation of young people as well as Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s war and other asylum seekers struggling to find homes.

Ireland has taken in nearly 100,000 Ukrainians since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of their country last year, prompting Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to say there was now a “limit on our capacity”.

More than 400 other asylum seekers are being housed in tents because other accommodation is full.

Ireland, which next year faces local and European elections in June and possibly a general election that must be held before March 2025, has responded to the riots by promising to toughen hate crimes legislation.

The ISD’s Gallagher cautioned against “a sense of complacency that as a country, we’re immune to this stuff”.

- Copyright Financial Times Limited 2023

* This article has been republished after the Financial Times corrected its original report “to reflect Simon Coveney saying his Government would respond with social measures and local outreach when putting asylum seekers in short-term accommodation.”